You're standing in a foreign square admiring a cathedral when a young woman grabs your handbag and jumps onto a motor scooter.
She's gone in an instant.
Or as you stroll down a crowded street, someone brushes past you. Later discover your wallet is gone.
Or perhaps you find yourself surrounded by a group of children who tug playfully at your camera, urging you to take their picture. After they've disappeared you discover you valuables have disappeared with them.
What's happened here is that you've become a statistic in the annals of tourist crime. Although seldom violent, such incidents can wreak havoc with vacationers overseas.
How can you avoid being victimized?
Prevention and security begin at home. Plan your travel wardrobe with an eye to safety. Invest in a money belt with several compartments and a "safari vest" with numerous zipper-closed pockets.
Purses and camera or tote bags should have zippered sections and wide straps that are long enough to wear over one shoulder and across the chest.
Leave expensive jewelery at home--along with that that nice, multipurpose passport case. Because if lose it, you've lost everything.
Instead, split things up: carry currency in a wallet, credit cards and vital papers in a money belt or secure pocket. Divide your traveler's checks into separate checkbooks, keeping some in your suitcase and others with you.
Make a Checklist
Before leaving home, write down the number of every document or financial instrument you're taking.
Make several copies and attach to each a photocopy of the information page of your passport.
Airports and stations are fertile ground for those who prey on tourists, so beware.
If you're traveling with your spouse or any companion, make sure you each carry your own documents, cash and other valuables. If one person falls prey to a pickpocket or purse-snatcher, at least you won't both lose everything.
Keep Baggage in Sight
Don't leave suitcases unattended. On trains, keep your baggage in sight.
When renting a car, choose one with a trunk. Thieves can smash hatchback windows and grab bags at stoplights.
So don't leave anything in a parked automobile. When you reach your overnight destination, remove your luggage.
Avoid leaving valuables in a hotel room, whether it's a five-star palace or a simple pension. Any door can be unlocked by a clever thief.
Use the hotel safe, or ask the manager to take charge of your belongings.
Don't carry more cash than you need. Most shopkeepers will hold your purchases for you. Some will even deliver them to your hotel and accept payment there.
'Urban Guerrilla' Look
Carry what you must securely. That money belt and multipocket vest, together, should easily hold all valuables. Women wearing skirts have another option: a slip with a secret pocket in the hem. American passports command high prices on the black market, while stolen tickets can often be resold or turned in for cash.
Being alert doesn't mean you must constantly keep looking over your shoulder, but be aware of your surroundings.
Is the square dark or deserted? Quick-footed purse-snatchers can be long gone before you discover your loss.
In crowded areas around a city's most prominent landmarks, some enterprising pickpocket may be lurking.
If It Happens
Perhaps you did your best and were outsmarted, or maybe you got careless. Now, what?
First stop: the police station. If no one speaks English, phone your hotel or the local tourist office and ask for an interpreter.
You will have to fill out a form describing you loss. Someone will type up an official report, which you must sign. Keep your copy.
Your next move will depend on what's missing. With luck, your important documents were back in the hotel safe.
The theft of clothing, of course, is an excuse to go shopping. Replacing your passport will be the greatest nuisance. You must go in person to the closest U.S. Consulate, which could involve a major detour from your itinerary.
Years ago my passport case was lifted out of my handbag as I boarded a train. It contained almost everything important--I hadn't yet learned that lesson--but I did have extra traveler's checks with the serial numbers listed.
After a visit to the police and an overnight train trip, I presented myself at the consulate. I was completely unprepared for their question: Could I prove I was an American citizen?
Sure. I had a passport: I even knew the number. But it was gone. I was traveling alone and had nothing else as proof of identity. As a result, I had to cable the State Department to verify my passport number, which took two extra days waiting for the replacement and, of course, delaying my trip.
That's why you photocopied your passport's information page: to spare yourself the empty feeling of being without that little blue security blanket so vital to all traveling Americans.